HCMCity, known as the nation’s commercial hub, is also a melting pot for cuisines from around the world. Hoang Ha does the rounds.
“HCM City’s cuisine has no specific character”, is a common refrain. The southern metropolis may not boast many iconic indigenous dishes, but it is a gastronome’s delight for the foods it serves up from around the country and, indeed, world.
Viet Nam has a bewildering variety of foods, and all of it can be found easily in HCM City, be it Lo Duc pho, La Vong cha ca (fish loaf) from Ha Noi, Ninh Hoa nem (fermented pork roll) from Khanh Hoa on the south-central coast, Tam Ky chicken from the central Quang Nam.
Ditto foreign cuisines
While European foods from France, Italy, Germany are mostly the preserve of upmarket restaurants, Asian cuisines seem to have permeated and deeply influenced every nook and cranny of the city.
China has had the most extensive and longest influence on the foods and eating behaviours of Vietnamese nationwide, especially in HCM City. Think chopsticks, bean curd, and woks and the stir-frying of foods and cutting them before cooking.
There is also the strong influence of Chinese ingredients and flavours on noodles, dumplings, and meat dishes in the city.
Local residents know that Cho Lon – formerly known as Chinatown – in District 5 is the place to find all manner of Chinese cuisine ranging from Guangdong to Fujian.
Also on the menus there are dishes from Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, places that are known for their food.
People living in the city for long remember a common habit in the 1970s of going to Cho Lon to buy Chinese specialities like Hong Kong dried persimmon and Taiwan Chinese sausage for Lunar New Year.
A local favourite is Tien Phat Restaurant at18 Ky Hoa Street near Parkson Hung Vuong Plaza. Its specialty is dimsum for genuine Hong Kong-style breakfast.
It serves steaming wicker baskets of dumplings and rice rolls for VND21,000, stuffed crab’s claws for VND35,000, spicy chicken’s feet for VND30,000, egg buns for VND38,000, and pots of hot green tea for VND35,000.
Its noodle breakfast features wonton and braised trotters from VND29,000 and fish balls at VND27,000.
An old restaurant serving fine Cantonese breakfast is located on the first floor of Thuan Kieu Plaza. Hai San Thuan Kieu Restaurant’s best offering is deep-fried dimsum including crispy-shelled taro in salty and sweet varieties and shrimp dumplings. Most baskets and plates are priced at VND38,000 each.
Another iconic restaurant is Gia Phu, situated in a small alley off the street with the same name, which serves Fujian’s finest recipes.
It is famous for its shark fin soup, which is also called Phat nhay tuong (Buddha Leaps over the Wall). It gets its name from a 1,300-year-old folk tale in which a Chinese Tang dynasty monk was so tempted by the soup’s smell that he leapt over the wall between his temple and the eatery, leaving behind his vegetarianism.
But Chinese food is no longer restricted to Cho Lon. Tan Tong Loi restaurant on Vo Van Tan Street in District 3 is renowned for its wonton noodle soup and other dishes made of roasted duck egg noodle soup and wonton. Each dish is priced from VND40,000 upwards.
Connoiseurs are also partial to stewed sweet herbal chicken soup, roasted duck egg noodle soup, and wonton at Dai Duong Restaurant on Cao Thang Street and dimsum at Tan Sanh Hoat Restaurant on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street.
There is a 70-year-old hand-pulled-noodle restaurant in an alley off Le Dai Hanh Street, District 11. Thieu Ky Restaurant “has changed only the chef but not the taste for such a long period”, says Nguyen Thi Thu Thao, a customer.
People call the restaurant by its founder’s name — Tu Ky. The alley where the restaurant is located is also called by this name now.
The chef now is a grandson of Tu Ky, and he spends three hour a day to pull around 18kg of egg noodles. He mixes flour with duck egg and Chinese ash water. The noodle soup itself is served with red vinegar, an important ingredient for Chinese noodles.
The city’s younger generations have a fondness for bo bia, a common street food made from chinese sausage, jicama, carrot, dried shrimp, and slivers of thinly scrambled egg.
Bo bia is the Vietnamese spring roll version of popiah, a Hokkien-style spring roll also popular in Singapore and Malaysia.
Hokkien cuisine, which originated in Fujian Province of China, was taken to Singapore, Malaysia, and Viet Nam by immigrants.
The Vietnamese version uses rice paper wrappers instead of wheat, and its fillings are slightly different, but all are stuffed with shrimp and jicama.
After bo bia become a street food, it is mostly served by Vietnamese though some Chinese restaurants too have it.
Ly, who sells bo bia from a handcart on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, says she has been there from noon to 5pm since 2000. She sells 500 rolls a day, with the number doubling on holidays. A roll costs VND4,000.
Another favourite street food for the city’s residents is Goi du du kho bo (papaya with dried beef salad). Many mistakenly think it is a northern dish while it was actually brought there by Chinese.
The dried beef is made from the lung, liver, and spleen of cows by adding black soya sauce and ginger.
It is served in traditional fashion out of a pushcart opposite Le Van Tam Park on Hai Ba Trung Street.
Customers sit on the pavement and wait for a woman to come to take the order. The chef puts papaya, dried beef, herbs, and peanuts on a plate and covers the ingredients with a light sauce.
Since Viet Nam has a large ethnic Khmer population, hu tieu Nam Vang (Phnom Penh noodle soup) is hugely popular in southern Viet Nam, especially Sai Gon.
A lot of Saigonese also mistakenly think of it as a Chinese dish, while others joke that it is multi-cultural since it comes from Cambodia, is mostly cooked by Chinese, and is served to Vietnamese.
Hu tieu, Kuy teav in Khmer, is made of rice noodles with pork stock and toppings.
As the pork broth is the most important element of the dish, it must be stewed with the best pork bone to be subtle rather than spicy.
|Borderline: Traditional Cambodian hu tieu Nam Vang served with all the ingredients in the soup at Lien Hua Restaurant. — VNS|
The dish is always served with a garnish of lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, sawtooth coriander, and lime juice. Many types of chillies (fresh, dried, pickled) and chilli sauce are also normally present at the table in addition to soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar.
Hu Tieu Nam Vang may be served in one of two ways: with all the ingredients in the soup, or with the soup on the side.
Several authentic hu tieu Nam Vang restaurants – where the food is cooked by Cambodians — can be found in the city. Like Hong Phat on Vo Van Tan Street, Tylum on Huynh Man Dat and Lien Hua on An Duong Vuong Street, both in District 5.
Due to their authentic and sophisticated method of cooking, a bowl of hu tieu at these restaurants costs at least VND80,000, double or triple the price at a normal restaurant.
In recent years economic growth has brought the cuisines of many countries to the city. Thus, commonly found are South Korean BBQ, kimchee, kimbap, and noodles; Japanese sushi, sashimi, miso soup, udon noodle, and grilled and pan-fried dishes; Thailand’s tom yam goong, tom kha gai, som tam, and kao phad.
If Korean food is your thing, go to Thang Long Street. Le Thanh Ton Street is full of Japanese restaurants; Ha Ton Quyen Street is all about dim sum. If you cannot travel to Singapore, you could nip down to Le Anh Xuan Street to eat frog porridge.
As for Vietnamese foods, restaurants around Tan Son Nhat International Airport serve the authentic tastes of the north. You can find mi Quang (noodle with pork and shrimp) from the central region at the Cong Quynh Street T-junction.
Local residents may not be able to tell you if you ask them about the city’s specialties. Maybe it is the easy acceptance and assimilation of outside influences that is the character of HCM City’s cuisine.
But does it eally matter when just living in this laid-back city is such an enjoyable experience?